Pearl Harbor Seaman’s Heroism Earns Him WWII’s 1st MoH

By Katie Lange
DoD News, Defense Media Activity

This blog is part of a weekly series called “Medal of Honor Monday” in which we’ll highlight one of the nearly 3,500 Medal of Honor recipients who have earned the honor of wearing the U.S. military’s highest medal for valor. 

DoD graphic by Regina Ali

DoD graphic by Regina Ali

Since it’s January, we’re highlighting a series of “firsts” this month. While last week’s inaugural blog was on the first-ever Medal of Honor recipient, this week’s is all about the first World War II service member to receive the medal: Navy Seaman 1st Class James Ward.

Ward, of Springfield, Ohio, joined the Navy in November 1940. He was 20 years old and stationed in Oahu, Hawaii, when the Pearl Harbor attacks happened on Dec. 7, 1941. Unfortunately, his ship, the USS Oklahoma, was one of two that took the brunt of the assault.

The Oklahoma was docked at Battleship Row when the Japanese began attacking. Within the first few minutes, the battleship was struck by several torpedoes, causing it to capsize. When that outcome became inevitable, the order was given to abandon ship.

Navy Seaman 1st Class James Ward. U.S. Naval Historical and Heritage Command photo

Navy Seaman 1st Class James Ward.
U.S. Naval Historical and Heritage Command photo

Ward, however, did not. He was one of many men trapped in the darkness, trying to find a way out of the burning vessel. Ward was in the gun turret when the ship began to turn. Instead of running, though, he grabbed a flashlight and pointed it toward the ship’s exits so several other men could see to escape.

In doing so, he sacrificed his own life.

Ward posthumously received the Medal of Honor for conspicuous devotion to duty, extraordinary courage and complete disregard of his life, above and beyond the call of duty.

Of the more than 2,400 people who died that day, 429 victims were on the Oklahoma. Only a handful of men made it out before the ship capsized, while about 30 more were dragged out through holes cut in the hull in the days after the attack.

Less than two years after the U.S. was launched into World War II, a destroyer escort ship was commissioned and named in Ward’s honor: the USS J. Richard Ward (DE-243).

One other man on the Oklahoma earned the Medal of Honor that day – Ensign Francis Flaherty, 22, who also died guiding other men to safety.

Thank you, men, for your heroism. May we always remember your sacrifices.

Related Content:
1st ‘Medal of Honor Monday’ Focuses on First-Ever Recipient
This Pearl Harbor Vet’s Lucky Reassignment Kept Him Alive

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